Junkfood Science: Fat children and the courts

March 04, 2008

Fat children and the courts

Two different news stories today reveal the struggles of parents trying to keep their children that the court system and social service officials want to take away. Their crime: the children are fat.

Both stories illustrate the costs to innocent children and their parents of prejudicial beliefs about the causes of obesity. One can only imagine what these parents and children have been through.

The New York Law Journal reports on 9-year old Brittany. Her parents had been charged in 2003 with neglect for failing to take steps to control her weight. Over the next four years, the Country Department of Social Services had removed her from her parents’ home three times and placed her in foster care. Since Brittany is 'obese', she “undoubtedly has an eating disorder,” said the courts. Thursday, the New York appeals court ruled that the parents were not willfully violating the terms and conditions they’d been given in and were making good faith efforts to control her weight and comply with the agencies conditions. So, for now, she can stay with her parents.

The National Post discovered two cases but because of publication bans was only able to give cursory details. Reporter Anne Marie Owens writes: “The societal panic over childhood obesity, already entrenched in the medical system and evident in the furor over school lunches, is beginning to influence custody judgments and child-welfare authorities in their decisions about fitness to parent.

She uncovered that Children’s Aid Society had recently cited obesity as the reason for taking an Ontario child from its parents, blaming the mother for her child’s weight and the failure of a mandated medical regime.

Another unsettling case was a nine year custody battle between parents of twins, with the father citing childhood obesity as proof of the mother’s neglect for “overfeeding” the children. As Owens writes: “evidence in the case [used] language that makes poor nutritional choices seem tantamount to child abuse... These far-reaching measures suggest the state may increasingly seek a role in the kitchens of the nation, a reflection of cultural attitudes that put obesity beyond mere medical concern and perhaps more in line of social scourge.”

The almost continuous litigation fight began when the twins were two years old. Dr. Glenn Berall M.D., FRCPC, a member of the Canadian Obesity Network and assistant professor at the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Toronto, became involved when the custody battle began. Dr. Berall speaks and writes on childhood obesity, as he did at the University of Saskatchewan’s Obesity: New Prescriptions for the Canadian Epidemic conference on October 17, 2003:

What are the causes of obesity? Childhood obesity is caused by a myriad of issues, including excess caloric intake; inactivity; excess high-calorie foods; unhealthy family lifestyle; and emotional issues, which can lead to overeating.

As reporter Owens writes:

When the children were just two years old, Dr. Berall determined the boy was morbidly obese and his sister overweight, and set them on a prescribed course that included twice-weekly weigh-ins. At one point in the long-running custody battle, he told the court “consistently, with rare exceptions, the children lost weight under the care of their father and consistently gained weight, with rare exceptions, under the care of their mother." Robert, the father, put forth a custody plan that gave him "sole responsibility for the children's health care for the primary reason that he could enhance and direct the children's ongoing weight-management program," the judgment said. The mother, Lisa, argued against the father gaining full custody, saying that his approach to parenting was “his continuous attendances with the children on numerous medical reviews, weigh-ins and the administering of blood tests; combined with his continuous negative references to others and directly to the children that they are overweight, not normal and are ill and in danger of developing certain conditions or diseases."

Would the courts see the mother as trying to protect her growing toddlers from negative fat stigma and help them grow normally, or would she be seen as irresponsible for not keeping them on restrictive diets so they’d lose weight? As Owens reports:

In the end, the court determined that primary custody should go to the mother, where the children seemed most happy and well-adjusted ... [Mr. Elliot Birnboim. the mother’s lawyer, said:] “Not to downplay the health issue, but we've got to push aside some of the prejudices we have about obesity. It doesn't preempt having a happy, well-adjusted child."

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